Hilary Mantel Essay - Critical Essays

Mantel, Hilary


Hilary Mantel 1952-

(Born Hilary Mary Mantel) British novelist, short story writer, critic, travel writer, and editor.

Mantel is best known as a darkly imaginative storyteller whose work has focused on such topics as family life, isolation, the nature of time, and the consequences of political and social policies. Considered representative of the post-World War II British fiction writers, Mantel is highly regarded for her social satire as well as her historical novels, particularly A Place of Greater Safety (1992), which depicts events during the French Revolution.

Biographical Information

Mantel was born in Derbyshire, England on July 6, 1952, the oldest of three children of Irish Catholic immigrant parents. As a young girl, she was sent to a convent school. In 1970, Mantel began to study law at the London School of Economics and Political Science and received her law degree from the University of Sheffield in 1973. For a year, she worked as a social worker in a geriatric hospital. During this time Mantel developed an interest in writing. When her husband, a geologist, secured employment in Southern Africa in 1977, Mantel moved with him to Botswana. In 1983, the couple moved again, this time to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Both of these settings provided material for Mantel's later novels. Returning to England in 1986, Mantel began writing full-time. She worked as a film critic for the Spectator in the late 1980s and contributed several short stories and reviews to periodicals, including London Magazine, London Review of Books, and Literary Review.

Major Works

In her first novel, Every Day Is Mother's Day (1985), Mantel portrays the bleak lives of Muriel Axon, a mentally ill woman, and her young social worker, Isabel Field. In 1986, Mantel published a sequel to the book, Vacant Possession. Both novels are considered biting satires of the British welfare system and explore such themes as marital and family life, ghosts, prisons, and the impact of social and political policies. Eight Months on Ghazzah Street (1988) is a mystery story loosely based on Mantel's time in Saudi Arabia. It focuses on the alienation and repression of women, especially Western women, in a fundamentalist society. Her next novel, Fludd (1990), chronicles the arrival of Fludd, the reincarnation of a sixteenth-century scholar, to a tiny, isolated village in Northern England. In 1992, Mantel published A Place of Greater Safety, a historical novel set during the French Revolution. It follows the stories of three major revolutionaries—Camille Desmoulins, Georges-Jacques Danton, and Maximilien Robespierre—and their role in the history of France. Her next novel, A Change of Climate (1994), was inspired by Mantel's time in South Africa and depicts the lives of two British missionaries and how they handle hardship and tragedy. An Experiment in Love (1995) follows several interconnected young women as they mature into adulthood. The Giant, O'Brien was published in 1998. This historical novel blends fact and fiction, depicting the story of an eighteenth-century Irish giant, Charles O'Brien, and his relationship with a famous London surgeon.

Critical Reception

Many commentators have found it difficult to categorize Mantel's work; her eight novels range from suspense thrillers to black humor to historical fiction. Her diverse interests and work in disparate genres has prompted considerable critical commentary. Regarding her historical fiction, reviewers have argued that Mantel rejects the conventions of the genre, creating a unique amalgamation of fact and fiction. She has been applauded for her vivid imagination, unsentimental writing style, and lively dialogue. Although some critics have called her novels pessimistic and claustrophobic, her work is often praised for its deft exploration of such topical issues as feminism, religion, and the social welfare system in England. Mantel's work is often compared to that of Muriel Spark for its black humor and sharp satirical qualities.

Principal Works

Every Day Is Mother's Day (novel) 1985

Vacant Possession (novel) 1986

Eight Months on Ghazzah Street (novel) 1988

Fludd (novel) 1990

A Place of Greater Safety (novel) 1992

A Change of Climate (novel) 1994

An Experiment of Love (novel) 1995

The Giant, O'Brien (novel) 1998


Christopher Hawtree (review date 29 March 1985)

SOURCE: “Roasting Them,” in Times Literary Supplement, March 29, 1985, p. 341.

[In the following review, Hawtree provides a favorable assessment of Every Day Is Mother's Day.]

Evelyn leaned forward, her hands clasped together, her eyes closed, and scalding tears dropped from under her lids. Mrs Sidney watched them falling. Her heart hammered. Evelyn's mouth gaped open, and Mrs Sidney dug her nails into her palms, expecting Arthur's voice to come out. … “Mrs Sidney,” Evelyn said, “your husband Arthur is roasting in some unspeakable hell.”

By the mid-1970s in Hilary Mantel's first novel [Every Day Is Mother's Day] Evelyn Axon has long since abandoned her spiritualist sessions and her neighbour Mrs Sidney has been carted off to a home. The past lingers, though, to make the tangle of daily events a hell even for those characters whose houses “would soon be as warm as they could afford.”

The novel opens with the widowed Evelyn's discovery that her daughter, Muriel, is pregnant. This might seem commonplace. “Muriel, for her part, seemed pleased. She sat with her legs splayed and her arms around herself, as if reliving the event. Her face wore an expression of daft beatitude.” For many years Evelyn had kept her moronic daughter all but confined to the darkness of the house in Buckingham Avenue, a place which...

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Harriet Waugh (review date 13 April 1985)

SOURCE: “Unhappy Families,” in Spectator, April 13, 1985, pp. 30–1.

[In the following mixed review, Waugh unfavorably compares Mantel's Every Day Is Mother's Day to Patricia Angadi's novel The Governess.]

Patricia Angadi and Hilary Mantel are both talented, first-time novelists. In Mrs Angadi's book, The Governess, there is an ease and maturity that is lacking in Every Day Is Mother's Day—which is hardly surprising, as Mrs Angadi has waited until her seventieth year before taking the plunge into print. She might well have drawers full of less considerable stuff such as conventionally makes up the babblings of most novelists’ first printed...

(The entire section is 887 words.)

Margaret Walters (review date 21 April 1988)

SOURCE: “You Bet Your Life,” in London Review of Books, Vol. 10, No. 8, April 21, 1988, pp. 20–2.

[In the following review, Walters praises Mantel's narrative techniques in Eight Months on Ghazzah Street.]

In Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, Hilary Mantel makes skillful use of thriller techniques, as a way of keeping us edgily involved with her heroine, who's tense and lonely, and anxiously trying to make sense of a world she fears, dislikes, and certainly doesn't understand. Frances Shore's engineer husband is working in Saudi Arabia; she can't get a job, women aren't allowed to drive or walk on the streets or even go shopping alone. Occasional meetings...

(The entire section is 349 words.)

Hugh Barnes (review date 1 May 1988)

SOURCE: “Bosphorescence,” in Observer, May 1, 1988, p. 43.

[In the following review of Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, Barnes asserts that “Mantel has written an elegant and disturbing account of the changes wrought by alienation.”]

A roaming topography also takes over in Hilary Mantel's Eight Months on Ghazzah Street where a young woman, less cosmopolitan than Madame de Rochefauld, makes a long-distance journey, and plunges abruptly into the closed world of Saudi Arabia. Like Catherine, Frances Shore encounters a mixture of routine and surprises, which hardly compensates for arriving at the wrong time.

This Englishwoman joins...

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Anita Brookner (review date 14 May 1988)

SOURCE: “The Mysterious Affair at Jeddah,” in Spectator, Vol. 260, No. 8340, May 14, 1988, p. 43.

[In the following mixed review, Brookner considers the controlled atmosphere of Eight Months on Ghazzah Street.]

Devotees of Hilary Mantel's earlier novels will be surprised by this one [Eight Months on Ghazzah Street] a horror story with an atmosphere as strange as that of a detective story, but a detective story that fails to tie up the loose ends. Clues abound and plots are plotted, but explanations are lacking. Before the last page has been reached one is fiercely uncomfortable, as if one had been trapped inside a complete delusional system. And the...

(The entire section is 984 words.)

Adam Mars-Jones (review date 20 May 1988)

SOURCE: “Baffling Boxed-In,” in Times Literary Supplement, May 20, 1988, p. 552.

[In the following review, Mars-Jones offers a mixed assessment of Eight Months on Ghazzah Street.]

Which is stronger, the whale or the polar bear? It's not easy to tell, since the bouts are so hard to arrange, but Hilary Mantel comes close to setting up a similar contest in Eight Months on Ghazzah Street. The opposed principles in her novel are the intelligence of her heroine, Frances Shore, and the world of Islam, as represented by the city of Jeddah, where Frances joins her architect husband Andrew.

Hilary Mantel made her name with a pair of black comedies,...

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Lindsay Duguid (review date 8 September 1989)

SOURCE: “Ecclesiastical Auras,” in Times Literary Supplement, September 8, 1989, p. 968.

[In the following review of Fludd, Duguid commends the novel as both “funny and moving.”]

Fludd is a novel about Roman Catholicism which is in the tradition of Muriel Spark rather than David Lodge. Serious without being pious, satirical without being trivial, and always forgiving, it describes the religion of Fetherhoughton, a windswept Northern town whose hideous stone terraces are caught between mill and moor. Fetherhoughton's deformed Irish Catholicism, which puts an emphasis on abstinence and sin, is better suited to the uncompromising nature of its...

(The entire section is 681 words.)

Nicci Gerrard (review date 15 September 1989)

SOURCE: “More Than Just Making Do,” in New Statesman & Society, Vol. 85, September 15, 1989, p. 34.

[In the following positive review of Fludd, Gerrard contrasts Mantel's novel with Elaine Feinstein's All You Need.]

In the interior, dreamy worlds of Elaine Feinstein's previous fiction, the nostalgia of remembered grief floods the present. One of her novels is called The Survivors and its title describes most of Feinstein's characters, who (often because they are Jewish, eastern European, and have lived through the horrors of world war two) have been violated by the past. All You Need’s characters are survivors of a very different kind....

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P. N. Furbank (review date 20 August 1992)

SOURCE: “Falling for Desmoulins,” in London Review of Books, Vol. 14, No. 16, August 20, 1992, p. 3.

[In the following review, Furbank analyzes A Place of Greater Safety as a historical novel.]

When Sarah Orne Jewett sent her friend Henry James a copy of her latest work, a historical novel entitled The Tory Lover, he told her it would take a very long letter to ‘disembroil the tangle’ of how much he appreciated the gift of this ‘ingenious exercise’ of hers, and how little he was in sympathy with historical novels. He begged her to come back to the modern age and ‘the dear country of The Pointed Firs’, to ‘the...

(The entire section is 1888 words.)

David Coward (review date 28 August 1992)

SOURCE: “Justice and Terror,” in Times Literary Supplement, August 28, 1992, p. 17.

[In the following review, Coward underlines the strengths of A Place of Greater Safety, particularly Mantel's portrayal of women and inventive narrative style.]

The French Revolution produced far more history than can be conveniently digested. To help it down, it has often been served garnished with Pimpernel and smothered in ideological sauces: the Revolution as the first taste of democracy or socialism, or Terror as a political instrument. Victor Hugo and Abel Gance exploited its epic dimension. Andrzej Wajda showed a symphonic clash of Titans. Hilary Mantel prefers the...

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James Saynor (review date 30 August 1992)

SOURCE: “Three Precocious Pals,” in Observer, August 30, 1992, p. 50.

[In the following essay, Saynor offers an unfavorable review of A Place of Greater Safety.]

It's not easy running the French Revolution from home—what with writ-servers camped outside and strangers tramping in and out at all hours, and piles of old newspapers everywhere and that creepy Robespierre hovering about like an undertaker. Over at Mrs Danton's, things aren't much better. There are the escalating membership fees to the Jacobin Club to worry about, and a visiting mother-in-law who moans, ‘This wallpaper must have cost a pretty penny.’

Writing convincing historical...

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Brian Morton (review date 4 September 1992)

SOURCE: “Citizens’ Band,” in New Statesman & Society, Vol. 121, No. 4100, September 4, 1992, p. 38.

[In the following mixed review of A Place of Greater Safety, Morton contends that Mantel “has made an accomplished job of a near-impossible outline.”]

Last month Hilary Mantel lent her increasingly weighty imprimatur to a historical novel called Malefice. She wrote that its author, Leslie Wilson, “lets the voices of her characters speak directly from their century to ours—and what they speak of are the constants of the human condition, the drive to power and the need for love.” It's hard to imagine that she wasn't subsconsciously...

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Nigel Spivey (review date 5 September 1992)

SOURCE: “The French Revolution as Fiction,” in Spectator, Vol. 269, No. 8565, September 5, 1992, p. 30.

[In the following review, Spivey places A Place of Greater Safety within the context of other novels based on the French Revolution.]

This [A Place of Greater Safety] is a tale of three men: Georges-Jacques Danton, Camille Desmoulins, and Maximilien Robespierre. Superficially, their early lives in provincial France do not seem packed with radical promise. Danton, following a Champenois usage, was put to suckle on a cow's udder at the age of two, and badly gored by a bull. At subsequent junctures of his youth he was beset again by farmyard beasts,...

(The entire section is 1054 words.)

Kate Kellaway (essay date 13 March 1994)

SOURCE: “Two Doors: Which One Will You Open?” in Observer, March 13, 1994, p. 20.

[In the following essay, Kellaway provides an overview of Mantel's life and work.]

Hilary Mantel lives in Sunningdale, Berkshire, in a stocky, dependable red brick house. Above her front door is a white plaster medallion of the Virgin and Child. The place used to be a nursing home for mothers and babies, then a dating agency. Now she and her husband live in it with their cats, Tertius and Bella. Past and present pets—pale lemony dogs, a masterful Burmese—stare out from oval silver frames. Hilary Mantel's face looks feline too, with unrealistically large, blue-saucer-eyes. She is...

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Peter Kemp (review date 25 March 1994)

SOURCE: “Fossils and Fundamentalists,” in Times Literary Supplement, March 25, 1994, p. 19.

[In the following review, Kemp applauds the insight and wit of A Change of Climate.]

A Change of Climate is a novel studded with fossils and relics. From a Norfolk landscape dotted with ruins and tumuli, Roman skeletons and terracotta shards are unearthed. Flint arrowheads poke out of the ground. On a beach at Cromer, prehistoric bison bones turn up. Elsewhere, a stroller across the sands finds a weird primeval object: the hundred-and-fifty-million-year-old shell of a bivalve, scientifically termed Gryphaea, but more commonly known as a “devil's toenail.”...

(The entire section is 865 words.)

Anita Brookner (review date 26 March 1994)

SOURCE: “Very Cold Norfolk, Very Hot Africa,” in Spectator, March 26, 1994, p. 34.

[In the following laudatory review, Brookner delineates the major themes of A Change of Climate.]

Hilary Mantel's new novel [A Change of Climate]—by far her most assured—deals with no less a subject than good and evil. Evil, we are told, is pure energy. This seems acceptable in the light of the unavailing efforts made by ordinary human beings to be good. It might be countered that Ralph and Anna Eldred are not ordinary human beings, that they have been chosen to suffer a wrong for which amends were never made, never could be made. It might also be argued that they were...

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Anna Vaux (review date 28 April 1994)

SOURCE: “A Form of Showing Off,” in London Review of Books, Vol. 16, No. 8, April 28, 1994, p. 13.

[In the following review, Vaux offers a stylistic and thematic overview of A Change in Climate, deeming it “a morality tale without a moral.”]

‘If God knows our ends, why cannot he prevent them, why is the world so full of malice and cruelty, why did God make it at all and give us free will if he knows already that some of us will destroy ourselves in exercising it?’ The question is put by Father Angwin, the non-believing priest in Fludd, Hilary Mantel's short, black, funny novel about Roman Catholicism. Then he remembers that he doesn't believe...

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Judy Cooke (review date 24 February 1995)

SOURCE: “Bothered by God,” in New Statesman & Society, Vol. 8, No. 341, February 24, 1995, pp. 54–5.

[In the following favorable review, Cooke compares An Experiment in Love with the work of Muriel Spark and David Lodge.]

In her last novel, A Change of Climate, Hilary Mantel took on the nonconformist tradition of mission and righteousness and exposed its insufficiencies. Her family of well-intentioned “East Anglican fossils” find that their parents’ religious and ethical beliefs lacked validity when it comes to the crunch. Faced by the immensity of evil, and the loss of their baby son, they react by blaming themselves.


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Julia O'Faolain (review date 24 February 1995)

SOURCE: “Not Nice Girls,” in Times Literary Supplement, February 24, 1995, p. 22.

[In the following review, O'Faolain finds parallels between An Experiment in Love and Muriel Spark's The Girls of Slender Means.]

Hilary Mantel is a darkly inventive storyteller who has in the past dealt ruthlessly with, among other targets, unhappy families, the social services, the Roman Catholic Church and the French Revolution. Her fictions blaze with satiric vision. Her tone is usually cool and her stance detached.

Her new novel, however, is narrated in the first person by its protagonist, Carmel, who, since she is telling her own story, risks paying a...

(The entire section is 1011 words.)

Anita Brookner (review date 4 March 1995)

SOURCE: “We Have Stood Apart Studiously,” in Spectator, March 4, 1995, pp. 36–7.

[In the following review, Brookner explores Mantel's portrayal of women in An Experiment in Love.]

The love mentioned in the title [of An Experiment in Love] is not of the sapphic kind, although the protagonists are three girls of roughly similar backgrounds who go to the same school and are later inmates—the word is apt—of a students’ hostel in London. The love, rather, is that disingenuous affection that in early days is almost indistinguishable from life at home, is taken for granted, unquestioned, accepted, even when a quite specific dislike is felt. Later attitudes...

(The entire section is 974 words.)

Dinah Birch (review date 9 March 1995)

SOURCE: “The Little Woman Inside,” in London Review of Books, Vol. 17, No. 5, March 9, 1995, p. 12.

[In the following review, Birch perceives Mantel as representative of the post-World War II British generation of authors.]

Women of my age, born in the early Fifties and now in our forties, have reached the season of retrospection. We have become—or have not become—wives, wage-earners, mothers, home-makers, gardeners or taxpayers. Our place in post-war history, formed by a procession of notions (often experimental, often contradictory) of what success is for women, has settled into a pattern that can be discerned and appraised. We can begin to compare our lives...

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Gabriele Annan (review date 8 August 1996)

SOURCE: “All about Evil,” in New York Review of Books, Vol. XLIII, No. 13, August 8, 1996, pp. 35–6.

[In the following favorable review, Annan compares Mantel to Graham Greene and asserts that in An Experiment in Love “her approach is slow and stealthy; the hair on the back of the neck rises, not all of a sudden, but gradually.”]

Hilary Mantel has just published a very cross article in The Author, the quarterly journal of the British Society of Authors. She grumbles about the large number of letters she says she gets, all deploring the pessimism of her novels:

They don't, on the whole, have the nerve to...

(The entire section is 1940 words.)

Charlotte Innes (review date 14 September 1997)

SOURCE: “The Searchers,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 14, 1997, p. 6.

[In the following essay, Innes discusses the defining characteristics of Mantel's fiction.]

Two-thirds of the way through A Change of Climate, James, the head of a hostel for “derelicts and drunks” in the East End of London, is shaken to his Christian core. He has just received a letter from his nephew Ralph, who is a missionary in Botswana. Something terrible has happened to Ralph and his wife, Anna, something unimaginably violent. And because James is wise, kind and an old hand at life's tragedies, he tries to compose, haltingly, a few words of encouragement in...

(The entire section is 1608 words.)

Paul Baumann (review date 5 December 1997)

SOURCE: “Critics’ Choices for Christmas,” in Commonweal, No. 4, December 5, 1997, pp. 25–7.

[In the following excerpt, Baumann provides a laudatory assessment of Fludd and An Experiment in Love.]

How many gimlet-eyed and razor-tongued English lady novelists can there be? Evidently an unlimited supply. I was vaguely aware of the name Hilary Mantel, but remained wholly innocent of her work until a friend urged her 1989 novel, Fludd (Penguin, 186 pp.), on me. It's a magically atmospheric book set in England's damp and gloomy north. Father Angwin, a sodden, grandiloquently grumpy parish priest who has misplaced his faith, takes center stage, at least...

(The entire section is 467 words.)

David Nokes (review date 4 September 1998)

SOURCE: “See for Yourself,” in Times Literary Supplement, September 4, 1998, p. 10.

[In the following favorable review of The Giant, O'Brien, Nokes maintains that “the novel has a weary, off-balance quality that catches where we least expect it.”]

Hilary Mantel, in her latest novel, The Giant, O'Brien, seems fixated by the hunger of public credulity. What will detain the imagination, or charm a penny from a tight-wad's pocket? “We are victim to fresh sensations,” says Bitch Mary. One day, a queue of eager spectators lines the walls of the premises in Spring Gardens, waving their half-crown entrance fee. The next, the novelty is gone: “Ooh,...

(The entire section is 724 words.)

Teresa Waugh (review date 12 September 1998)

SOURCE: “For Strong Stomachs Only,” in Spectator, Vol. 281, No. 8875, September 12, 1998, pp. 41–2.

[In the following positive review of The Giant, O'Brien, Waugh praises Mantel's storytelling ability.]

Hilary Mantel's new novel The Giant, O'Brien is about an 18th-century Irish giant. The heart, then, may well sink at the prospect of some fey, quasi-magical fantasy; but there is nothing fey about Mantel. On the contrary, her imagination encompasses the outright revolting, the pustular, the crapulent, the violent. I asked myself as I read on, my stomach churning, the bile rising in my gullet, whether this is any better than the quaint fantasy I...

(The entire section is 698 words.)

John Mullan (review date 1 October 1998)

SOURCE: “Freak Anatomist,” in London Review of Books, Vol. 20, No. 19, October 1, 1998, pp. 9–10.

[In the following review, Mullan regards The Giant, O'Brien as historical fiction.]

In the Council Room of the Royal College of Surgeons hangs the portrait by Joshua Reynolds of the 18th-century surgeon and anatomist John Hunter. It has been much darkened by the bitumen content of Reynolds's paint, and restoration work in the Fifties has not been able to prevent the fading into the surrounding gloom of many of its supporting details. Only Hunter's face, once bathed in light, is still fairly clear. One can just make out that he is depicted at his writing table,...

(The entire section is 2680 words.)

Jean Richardson (essay date 5 October 1998)

SOURCE: “Hilary Mantel: The Novelist in Action,” in Publishers Weekly, October 5, 1998, pp. 60–1.

[In the following essay, Richardson overviews Mantel's life and career.]

In the late 1970s, Hilary Mantel traveled to Botswana with her husband, a geologist employed by the government geological survey. On a card table on a verandah covered with bougainvillea, using a portable typewriter frequently choked with dust from the Kalahari desert, she turned out two drafts of a first novel, a 350,000-word account of the French Revolution.

Mantel has been using a word processor since the mid-1980s, but she still works from notes written in unlikely places,...

(The entire section is 2098 words.)

John Bayley (review date 8 October 1998)

SOURCE: “To the Pith of London's Heart,” in New York Review of Books, October 8, 1998, pp. 12–15.

[In the following favorable review, Bayley compares Mantel's historical imagination and narrative style to Sir Walter Scott, Jonathan Swift, and Peter Ackroyd.]

Inveterate novel-readers, not a common tribe today, can still be both fascinated and comforted by a vision of history, and by a novel confident enough to supply one. Sir Walter Scott's is still a potent spirit, although his novels, once in the background of every literate mind that loved the past, may nowadays hardly be read. He handed on the torch to unlikely runners: Virginia Woolf for instance, who in...

(The entire section is 3314 words.)

Further Reading


Barron, James. A review of A Change of Climate, by Hilary Mantel. New Statesman & Society 7, No. 294 (18 March 1994): 56–7.

Negative review.

Bell, Millicent. “Fiction Chronicle.” Partisan Review 64, No. 1 (Winter 1997): 43-45.

In this excerpt, Bell considers Mantel's narrative technique in An Experiment in Love.

Cohen, Bertram. A review of The Giant, O'Brien, by Hilary Mantel. British Medical Journal 317, No. 7171 (28 November 1998): 1533.

Asserts that “this book has to be classed as an unusually disappointing potboiler depending,...

(The entire section is 249 words.)